‘Face to Face with Anastasia’, text by Elizabeth Presa on the ‘I can’t stop living’ exhibition, Gertrude Contemporary, 2012

I remember Anastasia as a child lying in bed, face to face with the little grey tabby cat, Claude. Two faces on the pillow, each looking at the other.  Cats were her favorite things to draw.  She still looks at them, to draw and film, as if the details of their worlds reflect something of the joy, boredom and tragedy to be found in one’s own life.  Donkeys, too, seem to her to have individual lives, their quiet demeanors so often belying the burden of life’s abuses. For her, each cat and each donkey has its own unique biography.  Revealing something of these biographies is important to her.   But what does she see in the lives of animals that some philosophers fail to see, or see only as a lack or deprivation?

Aristotle believed animals to be deprived of speech.  In his view the sounds of their voices expressed only pleasure or pain, whereas “speech” – and this is what distinguishes, in his view, the human realm – is made to express “the useful and the harmful” and the “just and unjust”.  Heidegger, too, believed animals to be “poor in world”, deprived of speech, without relation to being and to death.

Speech, the voice, the mouth and ears bring us to the face. The face is what hears and speaks and sees. For the philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, the face becomes the figure of the other in his or her singularity – the neighbour, friend, refugee, prisoner, the derelict, or lover. It is to the face of the other that our ethical responsibility, “Thou shalt not kill,” is addressed and received.  Does an animal have a face? Derrida addresses this question in the ninth seminar of volume 1 of ‘The Beast and the Sovereign’ as he meditates on D.H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Snake’.  Certainly, cats and donkeys have eyes and ears and mouths, but does this amount to their having a face, a visage, so to speak?

Though Levinas left hanging the question of whether or not an animal can be said to have a ‘face’, he is surprising on what he understands a ‘face’ to be.  For the face is not only the arrangement of features on the head, “the whole body –a hand or a curve of the shoulder- can express as the face.”[1]  The poet Rainer Maria Rilke gives an even more radical account of faciality whose meaning and origin begin with recognition of the nuances of surfaces.

But let us for a moment consider whether everything before us, everything we observe, explain and interpret, does not consist simply of surfaces?  And what we call mind and spirit and love: are these things not only a slight change seen on the small surface of our neighbour’s face?

. . . and this contour of the mouth, this line above the eyelids, this shadow on a face– perhaps they have previously existed in exactly similar form: as a marking on an animal, a fissure in a rock, a hollow in a fruit. . .

There is only one single surface which suffers a thousand changes and transformations.

The Rodin book

An ethical engagement with the world demands our attention to the ‘inflexions and demeanours’ of living surfaces or what Raimond Gaita calls a ‘naturalism of surfaces’:

“Everything is on the surface, provided of course that one has an imaginatively rich sense of the surface.  Recall the words of Coetzee’s character in The Lives of Animals: ‘It is not the mode of being of animals to have an intellectual horror: their whole being is in the living flesh. If I do not convince you, that is because my words, here,  lack the power to bring home to you the wholeness, the unabstracted, unintellectual nature, of that animal’s being.’ The power that she wishes her words possessed is not the power to take one, speculatively, into what is hidden below the animal’s skin.  It is the power to show that everything that matters is there, that nothing is hidden, that the capacity to see depends on having a rich conception of the surface, a rich conception of what it is to be a living thing and therefore how to describe what it does and what it suffers.”[2]

Hence, for Gaita, ethics must include one’s paying adequate attention  to the rich world of appearances.

Does not Anastasia’s attention to cats and donkeys ask us to see through a narcissism where ethics belongs only to the human?  Does she not ask us to see through her language of lurid colour, textures, marks, juxtaposed images and unsteady camera work – to the human face of the animal and to the animal that each of us is.

[1] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity,  trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, 1992.  P. 262.

[2] Raimond Gaita, The Philosopher’s Dog’, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002. P.127.

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